• Reduce text

    Reduce text
  • Restore text size

    Restore text size
  • Increase the text

    Increase the text
  • Print


Daughters are more strongly attached to their mother than sons: a possible mechanism for early social segregation

Sheep are characterized by a strong mother-young bond. This work demonstrates for the first time that the attachment bond between the young and the mother differs according to gender: daughters are more strongly attached to their mother than sons. This type of relationship could be at the origin of social segregation commonly observed in ruminants, young females staying in their matriarchal group while young sub-adult males dispersing.

Romane ewe and her lamb. © INRA, Raymond Nowak
Updated on 12/02/2016
Published on 12/02/2016

Context and challenge:

In ungulates, sexual segregation is widely observed. It is characterized after weaning by the dispersal of young males while young females stay in their natal group. In some cases like in red deers (Cervus elaphus) and mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus), females stay in their maternal linkage. This phenomenon reflects the strong bond between such individuals, like what has been described in primates. Data on wild sheep reveal spatial segregation between sexes as well as a closer mother-daughter association, suggesting a stronger filial attachment in young females. In domestic sheep (Ovis aries) the mother recognizes her young and can adapt her behavior according to the identity of her offspring, and some data suggests that young females express a stronger preference for the mother than males.


This study compares filial attachment in young female and male lambs, using two experimental paradigms: the choice test, and the isolation-reunion-separation test. It takes into account the behavior of young lambs when in the presence of the mother and other adult maternal ewes, being either familiar or unfamiliar. The results show that mothers behave differently in the presence of young males and young females, illustrating a difference in maternal bonding according to offspring gender. In a choice test the preference for the mother is more strongly expressed in female lambs. Compared to males, in the two experimental tests female lambs are more deeply distressed when the mother is absent, and this is observed despite the presence of a familiar ewe.


The existence of an attachment bond between young lambs and their mother, more pronounced in daughters, makes us question the consequence of maternal loss in some rearing situations (artificial-feeding systems, early weaning). This work led us develop two experimental programs (projet Région Ovin2A, métaprogramme GISA Whelp) on the causes of excessive morbidity and mortality in lambs reared in artificial-feeding systems. They take into consideration short and long term consequences of environmental aspects (rearing shed), nutritional aspects relating to type of artificial milk offered to lambs (diarrhea, beneficial aspects of probiotics), and psychological aspects (presence of other adult ewes, or of human caregiver).

Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Animal Physiology and Livestock Systems
Associated Centre(s):
Val de Loire


Gaudin G., Chaillou E., Cornilleau F., Moussu C., Boivin X., Nowak R. 2015. Daughters are more strongly attached to their mother than sons: a possible mechanism for early social segregation. Animal Behaviour, 102(6), 33-43.